Executive Summary

1. Overview

This project serves as an overview of several federal subsidies and assistance programs funded by the Department of Agriculture that, either directly or indirectly, support animal agriculture in the United States.  

We assess the extent to which these programs influence the supply of and demand for animal products, as well as the degree to which these programs benefit industrial, confinement-based systems over more sustainable and humane production methods.  Based on these analyses, we recommend reforms that would either (1) decrease the government’s financial support of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or (2) increase the government’s financial support for higher welfare animal agricultural production.  As part of these recommendations, we assess both estimated impact of our proposed reforms and associated implementation challenges.

The governmental programs discussed herein can be categorized generally as either direct or indirect forms of assistance.  We define direct subsidies programs as those that provide financial or other support directly to animal agricultural producers--for example, by providing startup capital to new producers, covering farmers’ financial losses, or marketing or purchasing animal agricultural products.  Indirect subsidies programs, by contrast, reduce the cost of animal feed and thereby influence the costs associated with animal agricultural production.  Because feed is often the single largest cost for confinement-based systems, these feed subsidies have the potential to profoundly impact the economics of industrial agricultural production.  

The aim of this brief is to identify programs that incentivize low-welfare and environmentally unsustainable animal agricultural production methods, and to identify opportunities for reform of those programs. As such, we do not discuss government programs that already work to support or strengthen higher-welfare, sustainable farming systems.  In addition, the brief is limited to an analysis of federal, domestic programs.  The impacts of state and local programs and international trade and tariffs, for example, are beyond the scope of this initial project, but are worthy of future exploration.


2. Definitions

This project is intended to provide advocates with the information and tools they need to encourage government support for higher-welfare, more sustainable alternatives to confinement-based production methods.  It is therefore useful to begin with a general understanding of how this paper differentiates these methods of agricultural production.

When we use the terms “industrial agriculture” or “confinement agriculture”, we refer generally to the types of agricultural practices that the Environmental Protection Agency calls “Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)” or “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).”   The EPA defines AFOs as “agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations,” and CAFOs as “large concentrated AFOs” with “more than 1000 animal units.”  The following characteristics are typical of most AFO and CAFO systems:

  • Large concentrations of animals are grouped together with inadequate space to allow for natural behaviors;

  • Animals are housed in facilities with artificial lighting and temperature control;

  • Animals are housed without natural bedding or vegetation;

  • Animals are fed non-organic commodity crops such as corn and soy, sometimes supplemented with protein byproducts from other slaughtered animals, and are not grazed on pasture or range;

  • Animals are bred to prioritize rapid growth over health, which contributes to health issues including lameness and organ failure;

  • Animals undergo alterations such as debeaking and tail docking;

  • Animals are fed subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to drive weight gain on minimal feed

We use “higher-welfare” and “humane” farming as descriptors for practices that represent significant animal welfare improvements over confinement-based systems. While these terms do not admit of precise definition, we use them primarily to indicate practices that house animals socially, allow for natural behaviors, and encourage outdoor access.  Many higher-welfare farmers also prioritize higher-quality supplemental feed (such as organic feed), encourage year-round outdoor access, use no subtherapeutic antibiotics, and raise slow growing heritage breeds with few or no alterations. Often times, animals from these farms are slaughtered more humanely on site or at local custom slaughterhouses. Many of these animals are sold direct to consumers via farmers’ markets or CSAs.

In addition to representing significant improvements in animal welfare, these high-welfare systems are often are often accompanied by a greater emphasis on environmental stewardship, such as through use of rotational grazing methods.  Due both to their size and their methodologies, high-welfare farms also generally have fewer negative environmental externalities, such as manure runoff or air quality problems.[1]

[1] The benefits of high-welfare farming systems extend well  beyond animal welfare and environmental impact--including, for example, include improved working conditions and economic impact for rural communities and the production of healthier, higher-quality animal products.



[1] The benefits of high-welfare farming systems extend well  beyond animal welfare and environmental impact--including, for example, include improved working conditions and economic impact for rural communities and the production of healthier, higher-quality animal products.